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Computing and Information Science - feedback

by David G Smith
Tuesday 1 November 2011

The SQA, and no doubt a large host of teachers and consultants, have been busy in recent months building the framework for the new Senior Phase courses that are designed to embed the ideas of Curriculum for Excellence into Scotland’s qualifications, including the “gold standard” Higher.

As part of that process, many subjects, courses, and their contents have been rationalised or overhauled. Amongst those significantly affected has been the study of Computing. From having a mix of Computing Studies at Standard Grade, as well as distinct Computing and Information Systems courses as part of the Higher Still qualification, to a single subject now named Computing and Information Systems.

The SQA have requested feedback throughout this process. I thought I would share my feedback here… which it should be pointed out, is made without access to a significant amount of connected documentation which is not due until after the deadline for providing feedback!

Course Specifications

Purpose and Aims

I would like to start by whole-heartedly agreeing with the purpose of the (Higher) course:

Computing and information science is vital to everyday life; it shapes the world in which we live and its future. Computer scientists play key roles in meeting the needs of society today and for the future, in fields which include science, communications, entertainment, education, business and industry. Our society needs more computer scientists and for all young people to have an informed view of the IT industry and its contribution to the economy.

The aims are also broadly admirable. Although there is a lack of definition of what some of the aims refer to, such as what the “key concepts” of the subject are. I would have hoped that precisely these types of questions should have been answered first, and not vaguely alluded to in course specifications.

Course Structure

I am concerned that in rationalising the previous Computing and Information Systems courses, the content of the optional units have mostly been dropped, and that has left just Software Development and Database Systems, along with a little bit of Computer Systems and some web development thrown in.

I am glad that we have managed to exorcise ICT skills from the study of Computing, as important as ICT competency is, but we have to be careful not to reduce Computing to little more than programming and databases. Computing is a broad discipline with many areas of specialisation, so confining the course to a pair of fixed units is very limiting. I would like to see some opportunities for these specialism, and other aspects of Computing, to be included in the course, or least the flexibility for teachers to include extra content in their own delivery.

Unit Specifications (National 4/5)

The outcomes of the Software Design and Development and Information System Design and Development units seem more or less appropriate at the levels they are intended, within the context of my concerns about the system specifications.

I am more concerned about the “mandatory skills, knowledge and understanding for the Computing and Information Science (National 4) Course” which appear in the only documentation I have seen which describes what students will be assessed on in the new qualifications. They include a significant number of already dated terminology, without some built in process for allowing the subject to adapt to developments in technology.

Let me exemplify with a couple of examples.

The types of computer stated mean that students must define (at the equivalent of Int 1, or General, level) what a “mainframe” is despite their being a great chance they will never encounter one even if they eventually work in the Computing industry. Similarly, they must define the term “PDA” despite the fact that this is a term (and class of device) that has almost universally obsoleted.

The same point could be made of the discussion of data types as well as storage, input, and output devices. Apparently arbitrarily missing from the fixed list of output devices are LED displays, and yet a distinction is made between LCD and plasma displays.

I have no issue with the actual terms, rather with embedding them in the assessment documentation, and therefore burdening students and teachers with their definitions until such a time the course is revised. Why do these terms need to be specified at all? Is it not enough to talk about the principles of these types of devices and allow the learning and teaching process to focus on the devices/terms that are appropriate at the point of teaching?

There is also the issue of design considerations being in the section on web-based applications (not sure if this refers to applications hosted on the web or those for creating web content – the term suggests the former, but the content statements the latter). Surely these principles apply equally to software and database development?

Finally on the the National 4 assessment, I am concerned about the sheer number of content statements, particularly related to the Information System Design and Development unit. I would like to see a more skill/task based course with supporting theory, whereas the content statements suggest to me that the opposite would be the result for that unit. I understood that one principle of the CfE courses was to allow for depth of study. At National 4 level I think that will be difficult with that amount of content.

General Comments

I am surprised at the closed nature of this development and consultation process, given the increasingly widespread use of the social aspects of the web. I have chosen to publicly share my feedback, and I would be glad if others did likewise. Transparency in the decision making process would help to reassure everyone that the result is the best outcome. After all, if I am the only person to feel as I do, I can hardly be unhappy if the result is not what I would like to see.

Related to this, I would like to know what input universities and industry had in helping to determine the topics that make up the course, and the content statements that make up each topic.

Could research and feedback, and not just selected highlights of the same, not be posted and available for all?

And finally, as I post this as feedback, I notice that you are not asked to leave a contact. So feedback will be taken, but there seems to be little plan to follow this up afterwards. I am sure that would be useful in a number of situations.

Addendum

Update: This post was written before the subject name was refined to simply Computing Science. The SQA have now finalised information on all levels of CfE Computing Science.